The Baltimore Riots, Inequality and Federal Inaction

04/29/2015 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

We hear politicians across the ideological spectrum talking about the "problem" of wealth and income inequality in America, yet few offer any concrete solutions. The rioting in Baltimore shows that inequality is not an abstraction or a talking point, but a real sociological phenomenon that is causing real suffering and instability in African-American communities across the country.

Police brutality in Ferguson or Baltimore or Oakland represents the failure to bring real economic reforms that might have a chance of ameliorating the suffering of the poor and unemployed. Yet the political will doesn't seem to exist to enact any of the bold programs necessary to alleviate the long-term suffering of America's growing underclass.

Freddie Gray's funeral in Baltimore reminded me of Emmett Till's funeral in Chicago 60 years ago: both revealed a shocking level of brutality while at the same time serving as a rallying point for direct action and civil disobedience.

Compared to the riots in Watts in 1965 or Newark in 1966 or Detroit in 1967, the looting and burning we've seen in Baltimore is on a smaller scale, yet it's probably a preview of what's coming. Unless the underlying economics is altered that has given rise to the underclass in the first place -- unemployment, discrimination, the lack of opportunity -- the battles with local law enforcement in these communities is likely to continue and grow in intensity.

The simple fact is that millions of Americans are living under a distorted form of laissez faire capitalism that will continue to breed civil unrest.

While unemployment remains disproportionately high among African Americans when compared to whites, the old "red-lining" tactics of sealing off black people into impoverished neighborhoods gave rise to more modern forms of exploitation such as predatory lending and usurious payday loan centers. Some of America's biggest banks made out like bandits, while the living conditions of millions of people trapped in poverty have grown ever more dangerous and unbearable.

Republicans like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and others use rhetoric that pretends to understand the sociology of despair that has gripped impoverished cities across America, but in the end they offer up only Moynihan Report-style behavioral critiques, as if a 40 percent unemployment rate for black young men in some cities can be overcome by changing their behavior. It's similar to how the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby frame gun violence as merely a problem of "mental health," rather than the pervasive access to guns. Behaviorist interpretations of sociological phenomenon like riots or gun violence are red herrings to divert attention and thwart any meaningful federal action.

The Democratic Party's mantra is to call for free community college and "education" as the answer for inequality. Yet the labor lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan, in his book, Only One Thing Can Save Us (2014), correctly points out that this laudable (and soothing) policy prescription still leaves out over 60 percent of workers in this country who will never attend college. A vague federal emphasis on "education" will not revitalize impoverished communities or create nearly enough good paying jobs to meet a fraction of what's needed. It will do little to reduce income and wealth inequality.

In 1965, following the Watts riot that lasted for six days and left 35 people dead and 900 injured, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a former Attorney General, told reporters that he believed it was pointless to demand African Americans obey the law when they were reacting to conditions that would lead any group to lash out.

For a black person in the South, Kennedy said, the law "has meant beatings and degradation and official discrimination; law has been his oppressor and his enemy." For those in the North, the law failed to protect blacks "from paying too much for inferior goods," or "from having their furniture illegally repossessed"; it did not "protect them from having to keep lights turned on the feet of children at night to keep them from being gnawed by rats." Nor did the legal system "fully protect their lives - their dignity - or encourage their hope and trust in the future." (Quoted in Palermo, In His Own Right, 2001, p. 166)

Kennedy's contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also made an argument 50 years ago after he toured the destruction in Watts that applies today: If the U.S. can afford to lavish tax dollars on a military-industrial complex to the tune of $700 or $800 billion annually, then some tiny fraction of that amount surely can be spent to bring employment (and hope) to millions of people who have been thrown overboard by a system that's rigged against them.

When Dr. King launched his Poor People's Campaign he called for a mass demonstration in Washington bigger than the 1963 March on Washington with people occupying the Capitol until Congress passed a $30 billion Marshall Plan for America's poor. King's assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, along with the Johnson administration rejecting the findings of the Kerner Commission (which also called for a sustained federal effort to alleviate poverty) seemed to have sealed the debate in a time capsule.

The labor historian, Nelson Lichtenstein, in The Retail Revolution (2009) shows how the Walmartization of the U.S. economy has victimized working people, undermined labor unions, and created a race to the bottom. Yet the Obama administration is currently lobbying hard for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is the latest corporate trade scheme designed to reinforce all of the most negative aspects of the new retail economy. It is sure to add to the U.S. trade deficit, outsource jobs, and repeal laws and regulations that protect workers, consumers, and the health of the environment. The TPP is exactly the wrong direction for U.S. economic policy.

The sociologist, William Julius Wilson, has been describing the causes for the development of the underclass in America for the past 30 years. And the works of Kevin Philips (Wealth and Democracy), Lawrence Lessig (Republic, Lost), John Nichols and Robert McChesney (Dollarocracy), Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (and countless other commentators) have already amply identified not only the social costs of the growing inequality, but also the stranglehold a tiny corporate elite holds over our political system.

The killings of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray, along with the militarization of municipal police forces, the rise of the prison-industrial complex, and the riots, are all symptoms of a much deeper malady. What Baltimore and Ferguson show is that the time for analyzing and fretting about inequality is over -- it's time for action.

We need more than a "conversation" or a "dialogue" about race relations. We need to enact the kind of Marshall Plan to alleviate poverty that Dr. King dedicated his final effort to attaining with his ambitious Poor People's Campaign. We've known what needs to be done since the days of the Kerner Commission, but our political class in Washington lacks the will to do anything constructive that might lessen the suffering in impoverished black communities.

Few realize that when Baltimore closed its schools in anticipation of violence it denied thousands of kids the only square meal they get each day. The young Chicago Black Panther, Fred Hampton (who was killed by the police in 1969) got it right when he said: "We're not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we're going to fight it with socialism."

The only realistic solution to the social dislocations caused by income and wealth inequality on the scale we see today will require the kind of bold federal action the Kerner Commission called for 50 years ago; a kind of democratic socialism that brings jobs (and hope) to these communities.

With so much work that needs to be done rebuilding these communities, and so many young people in need of work, we cannot leave it to Walmart or McDonalds to make the kinds of investments that are needed; only a federal Works Progress Administration can begin to repair the damage left behind by decades of outsourcing, downsizing, and economic discrimination.